What are the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT are timed standardized tests for admission into US universities. They are multiple-choice tests with the exception of one portion of the SAT where students have to generate responses to 13 math questions and enter them on the answer sheet. These 3-hour tests have sections on English language, Reading, and Math. The ACT has a science reasoning section as well. Both tests used to have an essay section, but universities no longer require the essay portion. Universities do not have a preference as to which test you submit; both tests are equally valued.

Do all US universities require the SAT or ACT?

The majority of US universities require the SAT or ACT.  There have always been universities that were test-optional as well as a handful of universities that had alternate options such as submitting AP scores or predicted IB scores instead of SAT or ACT scores. During COVID, when many test centers canceled test dates, the universities became test-optional for a period of 2-3 years but it is VERY likely they will be going back to requiring the SAT or ACT so my advice is to prepare for these tests. Even if you have one or two universities on your list that are test-optional, the majority will require testing!

How are the tests different from one another?

The ACT is now a computer-based test internationally so you will be taking it on a computer. Since this policy has gone into effect, there are fewer test centers in BC. Students who prefer taking the test on paper, have gone across the border to test in Bellingham or elsewhere. The ACT is a more straightforward test, covering what the student has learned in high school, but you have less time per question. The SAT is a more tricky test and includes material the student might not have encountered in high school to predict what the student is capable of learning. It includes questions on US history which Canadian students have to familiarize themselves with. The ACT has a distinct science section, whereas science is interspersed in the different sections in the SAT. For STEM students, it is an advantage to show a solid score on this science reasoning section (no facts need to be memorized). See the attached chart for details of the differences between the two tests.

How do I decide which test to prepare for?

The best way to decide whether the SAT or the ACT is right for you is to take a full-length timed practice test for each type. Factors such as how you handle time pressure and what types of questions you find more challenging can help us determine which test is a better fit for your style.

When is a good time to begin test preparation?

Grade 10 is the ideal time to begin preparation for the SAT or ACT test. Whether you decide to begin your tutorials in September or January of grade 10 is up to you. However, don’t underestimate how much time and practice it will take to do well on the exam, especially given that the average student will likely be taking the test 2 or 3 times – occasionally more times than that. Keep in mind that once you take a test. You will have to wait about 3 weeks for the results in order to see your score and to determine the sections that need more work. That means another month or more of preparation prior to addressing their weaknesses prior to testing again. Meanwhile, there are school projects, assignments, and assessments interfering with test prep. What we want to avoid is students having to spend the summer between grades 11 and 12 on test prep, forcing us to finalize their university list without having a test score in hand.

Can I self-study for the test?

I do not recommend tackling the test solely with self-preparation. If you wish to start working on
learning SAT vocabulary words or getting familiar with the content of the test on your own, it is perfectly okay to start that way, but learning strategy and especially how to use shortcuts to find the correct answers more quickly on the multiple-choice questions on these TIMED tests is essential.

Which section should I begin with?

Since students will have covered more math by the end of grade 10 than at the beginning, you are advised to begin working on the English portions of the test and leaving the math portions for later in your test preparation when your math skills will be more advanced.

How big a role will your MATH score play in your final score?

The answer to this question depends on whether you’re taking the ACT or SAT. On the ACT, Math accounts for one-fourth of your total score (your Math section score is averaged with your other three section scores). On the SAT, however, Math accounts for half of your total score, making it twice as important on the SAT! So if math isn’t your strong suit, consider opting for the ACT. With the ACT, a lower Math score won’t negatively affect your total score as much as it will on the SAT.

The ACT allows the use of a calculator for all math sections while the SAT allows calculator use for some sections only. The SAT’s student-produced response questions or grid-ins account for 22% of SAT Math, or 13 questions in total. Students can program their graphing calculators so that they can use these programs as shortcuts to solutions on both the ACT math and SAT calculator section.

When is the ideal time to take the actual SAT or ACT?

Ideally, I would like to have students finish all testing and retesting BEFORE the start of grade 12. Some students manage to take their first test in the fall of grade 11, others test in December or January of grade 11, and others in the spring of the same academic year. Occasionally, I have students finishing all testing by the end of grade 10 but that is rare.

When should I be done with all testing?

The number of students we see still testing in the fall of senior year is too many. Ideally, we want students done with testing and all retesting prior to the end of grade 11; the sooner they reach this milestone, the better!

How do I register for testing?

Register for taking the SAT through collegeboard.org and for the ACT through ACT.org. It is best to register when your test prep tutor tells you that you are ready for testing and definitely after you have been consistently getting the score you are targeting on TIMED mock tests. You must register for tests months in advance of the test date and some test dates are very popular and book quickly. Each test is offered about 7 times per year at various test centers or schools.

How are the tests scored and what is a good score?

The SAT is scored out of a total of 1600 points and the ACT out of 36 points. A good score is one that is above the median scores of admitted students for the universities you are targeting. If you are targeting Stanford and Harvard, 33+ is a good ACT score and 1550+ would be best for the SAT. If you are targeting MIT and Caltech, then a perfect score on the Math is essential.

Final words of advice:

Once you begin test preparation, you have to take it seriously and move forward full force. You cannot close the books for 3 months of the summer or not do any practice for several months. You will have to take several timed mock tests to determine your readiness prior to tackling the real test. In other words, we do not want you to take a real test to ‘just see’ how you do until we are sure you are ready; some universities require the results of ALL your tests – while others allow you to send in the results you choose to share. The goal is to get the testing over with as soon as you can. It is a burden off of your shoulders and one less thing to spend precious time on – not to mention, savings for your parents if you don’t spend two years in test prep classes or tutorials.